Xavier Thomas: The future face of the Clemson defense?


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Xavier Thomas: The future face of the Clemson defense?

One of the nation's most coveted prospects for college football's 2018 recruiting has his eye on the Tigers.

And the Gamecocks, Seminoles, Buckeyes and Crimson Tide.

Xavier Thomas doesn't know where he's going yet. And why should he? The hulking but agile strong-side defensive end (6-foot-3, 249 pounds) is just now preparing to start his junior season with Wilson High School in Florence, South Carolina. He only recently returned from going toe-to-toe with the nation's most elite talent at The Opening Finals, at Nike's Oregon headquarters. And he also this summer returned to Dabo Swinney Football Camp, where the No. 1 recruit on ESPN's Jr. 300 list was treated like a veteran.

Thomas spoke with TigerNet by phone this week about his summer activities, his goals for the coming season, and his recruitment process as it stands now. The consistent message from the Clemson coaches, he said, is that they see a star in the making.

“Coach (Dabo) Swinney told me himself, I'm the No. 1 recruit for 2018, and I could potentially be the new face of their defense,” Thomas said.

But first things first: There's that matter of giving those four other programs – South Carolina, Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State – thoughtful consideration.

“Mostly all of them are established programs, except for USC – they just got their new coaching staff there,” Thomas said. “And I want to see what they do this year. And just the fact that I grew up a USC fan, of course I want to consider them, being that they're so close to home.

“And Clemson, well, they're just red-hot right now, with recruiting and everything. … And also, they already have a great coaching staff and fan base and everything like that, but with the new facility they have coming in that's going to be done in 2017, that's pretty cool,” he said of the Football Operations Complex that's under construction.

“And with Alabama, well, you can't really say too much about Alabama – it speaks for itself.

“And Florida State, they were the very first school to offer me. And I'm interested in them, with (Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker) Lawrence Timmons – he also went there, and he's a Wilson alumni.

“And with Ohio State, that's a great program there. And I talk to Larry Johnson (defensive line and assistant head coach) pretty much all the time.”

In addition to the aforementioned programs, Thomas holds offers from Georgia, Florida, Auburn, LSU, Georgia Tech, Miami, Virginia Tech, Michigan and more than a dozen others.

In July, Thomas was one of a few underclassmen invited to attend The Opening Finals, where he said his youth did nothing to deter him from giving his all and rising to the occasion.

“It really didn't intimidate me at all – it just that showed I could handle myself alongside upperclassmen,” he said. “Because a lot of times, I can do the same things they can. And I just … showed them that I can compete, just like they can compete.

“It was a great experience. I got a lot of coaching, and competing against some of the best of the best. And it doesn't get much better than that. I'm looking forward to going next year.”

Thomas said the trip to Oregon affirmed what he already suspected about his game and provided new insights into where he can improve.

“I learned my strengths are my speed and power coming off the ball,” he said. “And using my hands a lot more – I need to work on that more. And keeping my motor going throughout the play.” (That “motor,” by the way, has been clocked at 4.58 seconds in the 40-yard dash.)

Indeed, a writer for Scout.com – a site that pegs Thomas as No. 2 at his position and No. 5 overall in the nation – reported that the Palmetto State product more than held his own against more seasoned competition.

“Xavier Thomas was elite off the edge going up against those who are a year older than him at The Opening Finals,” Chad Simmons wrote. “Not only did he show a great burst off the ball, but he showed power and the ability to use his hands to win in combat. … He was not intimidated by an elite group of offensive linemen who were older than him, but he embraced the challenge, and stepped up to be among the best.”

In its “Crystal Ball Predictions,” website 24/7 Sports projects Thomas' likelihood of becoming a Clemson Tiger at 50 percent, followed by South Carolina at 38 and Florida State at 12. Such numbers are pure speculation, of course, and for now – for Thomas – the only Tigers of concern are the Wilson Tigers.

“I'm looking for a very productive year with my teammates,” the defensive star said of Wilson, which opens the 2016 season Aug. 19 on the road at Timmonsville. “We have potential. Everybody has one mindset – that's a winning mindset. I think we have the potential to do some big things this year.”

But on Saturdays, he'll surely be watching the Tigers. And Gamecocks, Seminoles, Buckeyes and Crimson Tide. What does he think about Clemson's chances of meeting many observers' expectations and returning to the College Football Playoff?

“Well, just the coaches that they have – they have a great coaching staff there. And they have the players to do it,” he said. “And they have the Heisman finalist in Deshaun Watson, who's most likely going to win the Heisman this year. He's a great quarterback. And they have the running back, Wayne Gallman – he's a great running back.

“I think they have a very high chance of repeating and doing what they did last year, except winning it this year.”

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